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How Did I Get Herpes?

Posted on November 20, 2017

Is it accurate to associate the herpes virus with sexual relationships? It isn’t always that simple.

It was a year into their relationship when Jamie broke out into her first cold sore. At first she didn’t recognize the unfamiliar symptoms. When Jamie did finally discover what it was, she was embarrassed, ashamed, and confused. Did she get it from her boyfriend? Had her boyfriend cheated? The answer isn’t always as easy as you would think.

With two out of three people globally having the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1)1 and one in six people carrying the genital herpes virus (HSV-2)2 odds are you know quite a few people who carry these viruses. Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding herpes prevents many from discussing making the stigma of the virus sometimes worse than the actual virus.

When diagnosed with either HSV-1 or HSV-2 the natural first question is, how did I get herpes? The truth is that you may never know. This common virus can lay dormant for years before waking up. You might have even gotten it as a child and never known it.

Before you can understand how you might have gotten herpes, you first need to understand the virus itself. There are many herpes strains but the spotlight is on the HSV-1 and HSV-2 strains. HSV-1 causes oral herpes (or cold sores) and HSV-2 causes genital herpes but both can cause outbreaks in either place. There is no cure for the virus. When inactive the virus sleeps deep in your nervous system until triggered. When triggered, the virus wakes up and causes outbreaks. Triggers are usually immune related, and can be caused by lack of sleep, poor nutrition, too much sun, and stress. Discovering what your triggers are can be really helpful for managing the virus.

Most forms of the Herpes Virus are transmitted through direct skin-to-skin contact – such as kissing, oral sex, genital sex, or anal sex.  But there are many nonsexual ways you can contract herpes. It can happen from a kiss on the cheek, a kiss on the lips, sharing a drink, or sharing a fork. When you contract the virus, you may not have an outbreak for years, making it very difficult to know where you got it from. HSV-1 and HSV-2 have no age limits. A surprising number of children carry the virus usually contracting the virus from a family member through innocent normal sharing habits like a kiss on the cheek, or sharing food.

Herpes made headlines recently when a woman in California sued Sephora, because she claims that she contracted oral herpes from a “tester” tube of lipstick at the store. Although it is possible, it isn’t common to get the virus this way.  The studies are mixed on how long the herpes virus can live outside the body for. Most studies including one by the Mayo Clinic and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) state the viruses are very sensitive to their environmental conditions and don’t live outside the body for very long.  But a UCLA study conducted tests to show that the virus survived on a toilet seat for 1½ to 4 hours. It survived on medical instruments for 18 hours and on cotton gauze for 72 hours.

Even though the virus can survive outside the body, contracting the virus through objects is unlikely.  To be infectious, the virus would need to enter the body through open cuts on any part of the body or the mucous membranes of the mouth or genital area.

If you have the virus, you can help preventing the spread of the virus by taking extra precautions when you have an outbreak. If you have an outbreak or you feel one coming, refrain from sex until the outbreak is completely healed. If you touch a sore, wash your hands with soap and water immediately after. If you have a cold sore, don’t kiss anyone especially babies, children, or pregnant women.

If you have been diagnosed with herpes, don’t freak out. Although there is no cure, this common virus is not life threatening, and can be easily managed.  With such a large percent of the population carrying the virus, and a large percent having no idea they have it, it still confuses us why there continues to be such a large stigma with this virus.

Please refer to these resources for more information. And always consult with your health care provider with any questions.



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Genital Herpes

Planned Parenthood - Preventing Herpes

Cold Sores and Children


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